Terrifying Ophelia

What are we supposed to make of Hamlet’s wordless intrusion into Ophelia’s closet, as she narrates the incident to her father in the second half of 2.1.? What relationship does it have to the affective state in which we last saw him on the battlements, and how does it influence what follows in the play?

The last of these is answered easily enough. The physical signs displayed by Hamlet are reduced by Polonius into a conventional picture of love-melancholy – a familiar condition in this period – on the basis of which the Prince becomes closely-observed by the councillor and Claudius [1 ]. Ophelia’s description of Hamlet takes two parts. The first focusses solely on his appearance – hatless, clothing in turmoil, betraying signs of violent emotional distress – which prompts from her father the solicitous question: ‘mad for thy love?’ (981). The second, involving physical interaction between herself and Hamlet – his grasping of her wrist, his gazing on her face, and the heart-breaking sigh which ends their contact – confirms this suspicion in Polonius’ mind: ‘This is the very ecstasy of love’ (999). Since the councillor has earlier commanded his daughter to reject all romantic advances from Hamlet, he seizes on this as a diagnosis for the widely-publicized ‘transformation’ of the Prince’s behaviour. From here on Polonius will pursue this idea of disappointed love with an absolute conviction, and others – despite their misgivings – are at least prepared to give it a hearing.

From an audience perspective, however, the scene also exists in inescapable relation to what has immediately (in dramatic, if not narrative terms) gone before. There has just been the announcement of the feigned madness at the end of the last act; and this knowledge, unavailable to the other characters, will influence audience sense of what is going on here. Hamlet can appear to be reinforcing the pose of lunacy, acting out the part of the love-melancholic in a private rather than a public context, the better to sustain the illusion. Yet there is something that does not fully chime with this reading, either. The signs of Hamlet’s love melancholy are self-evidently a vehicle for meaning – and hence an invitation to be read – but their emotional tenor is that of terror, not desire: he is ‘pale as his shirt, his knees knocking each other’ (977). Again, reference to the earlier scene is unavoidable, for this immediately recalls Hamlet’s terrified response to the Ghost, and even, in his resemblance to one ‘loosed out of hell to speak of horrors’, the Ghost himself (979). Why would Hamlet present such clear signs of fear to Ophelia, if the object of his visit is to persuade her of his ardency [2]?

The requirement here is to separate out the signs that are to be read and interpreted by the onstage characters – Polonius and Ophelia – from the signs that are to be read by the audience. It would seem that this expression of terror is for the consumption of the audience alone, since it is missed (or misinterpreted) by both characters. But what to make of it? Contrary to the assumption sometimes made, this episode is not a direct continuation of Hamlet’s shaken condition in the aftermath of the encounter with the Ghost. The episode with Reynaldo has already established that substantial time has elapsed since then, and the intent perusal of Ophelia’s face suggests that she, not the story of the Ghost, is the primary concern of his visit.

Odd though the question may seem, then, we are justified in asking if Ophelia herself is to be identified as the object of Hamlet’s terror. This is the simplest supposition to make about his affective state here, however it may jar with expectation, since all the main indicators in his behaviour point towards it: not to disappointment with her, or to an attempt to confide in her, or to rejection, or to a bidding her farewell in the advent of a revenge mission. Although all of these have been construed, they require subtly different emphases from what we are actually given here [3]. In sum, this constitutes a theatrically-motivated set of indices necessary to lead Polonius to the supposition of love-melancholy, and a more important character-motivated set for which the manifest content is terror.

Why would Ophelia cause terror in Hamlet? She has rejected him under orders, that we know, and this may have caused him anguish (although nowhere in the rest of the play does Hamlet make any overt reference to this); but this, again, would require a rather different complex of signals: anger, hurt, a countervailing gesture of rejection. A farewell under the extreme duress of a revenge quest is a stronger candidate, and the long leave-taking at the close of their encounter has the requisite poignancy; but again, a sense of divided duty would generate heroic emotions of a different quality to naked fear. And it has never been fully explained why the revenger has to jettison his existing romantic attachments (is Ophelia really to be counted among the ‘trivial, fond records’ which Hamlet vows to dismiss on the battlements?). In trying to identify the source of this terror, we need to turn to the one comparable instance in the play where the intent scrutiny of a female subject is coupled with such an overpoweringly adverse response: the revulsion Hamlet expresses towards his mother’s behaviour.

This revulsion forms the main subject of Hamlet’s first soliloquy, and hinges on the interpretation he gives to Gertrude’s speedy remarriage to her brother-in-law in the aftermath of King Hamlet’s death. More specifically, the speech represents a process of interpretation which assembles a number of apparent violations of right behaviour on Gertrude’s part. Hamlet is shown contending with the implications of a). the speed of the remarriage, b). its object in a patently inferior man to his father, and c). its problematic indifference to a potentially taboo area of relations – the sexual union between ‘brother’ and ‘sister’. In terms of sheer volume of reference, a). is first in order with 5, while b). and c). share two mentions each; but all three recur at various stages throughout the play, and the latter two (Claudius’ inferiority and the ‘incest’) are strongly endorsed by the Ghost as fit subjects for moral outrage. Moreover, the overall shape and direction of the soliloquy suggests that all these factors are being seen by Hamlet as aspects of the same underlying failing in Gertrude, with the speed of the remarriage implying an active attraction on her part to what should most repel [4].

That this attraction is conceptualised by Hamlet as a violation of the natural order – and hence repugnant on those grounds – is strongly indicated by the opening and closing parts of the soliloquy. The first 9 lines are devoted to outlining an imaginative perspective in which the worst in nature has predominated over the best: the world is an ‘unweeded garden’ in which things only ‘rank and gross in nature’ have taken hold (319-21). The remainder of the speech then assigns causality to this in a single act of Gertrude’s, before ending with a weighted allusion to her repair to ‘incestuous sheets’ (341). That the latter factor is seen as offensive to nature despite its canonical rather than consanguineous basis is consistent with the tone of the speech, where Gertrude’s choice is characterised as worse than bestial (334-5). Freudian/post-Freudian readings are not required to justify the presence of the incest concern here: historicist readings of marriage between in-laws (especially in the case of Henry the 8th’s first marriage) show how ‘incest’ of this kind could be both a problem and not a problem, a violation and not a violation, according to the exigencies of the moment and the interpreter’s bias.

While the emotional state in Hamlet’s first soliloquy is not that of terror, the despair it articulates is violent enough to justify in him a wish for ‘self-slaughter’, and the speech ends with the hint that an even further deterioration in mood may follow (342-3). If this extremity of feeling is to have any rhetorical consistency, we need to acknowledge the implication that the particular instance has informed the universal – that one woman’s action has been accepted as evidence of an endemic ‘frailty’ (330) in womankind [5]. And if this ‘frailty’ indicates the capacity of one woman to violate the natural order in her sexual choice, then by extension or association, the same will, under the right circumstances, apply to Ophelia. These circumstances are provided by the revelations of the Ghost, who confirms the sexual attraction of Gertrude towards Claudius, emphatically describes their relationship as incestuous, and even augments the sense of abomination by hinting that it took place before King Hamlet’s death [6]. The terror which Hamlet radiates in the visit to Ophelia’s closet can thus be seen as a product of the fantasy that she is similarly prone: that she is vulnerable – or even open – to incestuous seduction [7].

The visit can therefore be construed as a direct continuation of the themes of the first soliloquy, with its nightmare images of defilement and depravity – already partly confirmed by the Ghost – now being transferred to Ophelia. The same set of performative indicators is shared across both: the exterior, unfeigned symptoms of melancholy in Hamlet; the drive toward self-extinction denoted in the sigh that seems to ‘shatter all his bulk and end his being’ (992-3). The main distinction lies in the progression in affective states from despair to terror on Hamlet’s part, and in the slippage between his conceptions of the ambiguous ‘incest’ of Claudius and Gertrude and the unambiguous kind he now ascribes to Ophelia and Polonius. For that it is Polonius whom Hamlet places in this relation to Ophelia (rather than the more theatrically-symmetrical option of Laertes) will emerge from the hints and allusions which he utters to the councillor under the guise of feigned madness: the ‘fishmonger’ reference; the abrupt non-sequiturs about his daughter and the ominous advice against her ‘conceiving’ by walking ‘i’ th’ sun’; the characterisation of him as loving his daughter like a ‘Jephthah’ or even, arguably, a biblical ‘Lot’ [8]. The reverse will hold true for the unprompted question to Ophelia during the nunnery scene as to the whereabouts of her father (1785), and the panicked admonition that he should ‘play the fool nowhere but in’s own house’ (1788). In these scenes the genuine madness of Hamlet – which is to say the morbid subscription to an entirely fantastic notion of incest rife at the court of Elsinore – is converted by means of the antic disposition into a set of humorous or satirical utterances which render his terrors manageable to him. But that terror receives its first and starkest demonstration in the visit to Ophelia’s closet, in a scene narrated rather than performed; although in its re-enactment by Ophelia before Polonius, the physical contact between father and daughter which is sometimes made use of on stage may help to underscore the darker import which it carries [9].

[1] For external signs of love melancholy very closely resembling those shown by Hamlet, see Rosalind’s depiction of the dejected lover in As You Like It, 3.2.: ‘your hose should be ungarter’d, your bonnet unbanded, your sleeve unbutton’d, your shoe untied, and everything about you demonstrating a careless desolation’ (Alexander Text).
[2] Fear could of course be included among the symptoms of love-melancholy by medical writers (although not without disagreement): see Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy (New York: NYRB, 2001), bk.3, pp.142-3. However, it is never the dominant emotion, which place – as Burton indicates – is given to sorrow.
[3] For an exhaustive exploration of the options in performance, see Marvin Rosenburg, The Masks of Hamlet (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1992), p.368-9.
[4]. See Marilyn French, ‘Chaste Constancy in Hamlet‘, in Shakespeare: Hamlet, New Casebooks, ed.by Martin Coyle (Houndmills: Macmillan, 1992), p.99.
[5]. French, Chaste Constancy, p 105: ‘failure in one woman is projected to failure in all’. For Hamlet’s more specific projection of his mother’s ‘flagrancy’ onto Ophelia, see Jaqueline Rose, ‘Sexuality in the Reading of Shakespeare’, in Hamlet, Norton Critical Edition, 2nd. edn., ed. by Cyrus Hoy (London: Norton, 1991), p.264.
[6]. See Philip Edwards, ‘Tragic Balance in Hamlet‘, in Shakespeare: Hamlet, New Casebooks, ed.by Martin Coyle (Houndmills: Macmillan, 1992), p.29: ‘It is abundantly clear that Claudius seduced Gertrude in the old king’s lifetime. It is the thought that this complaisant woman was accustomed to sleep with either of two brothers which gives special force to the idea of ‘incest’.’ Rebecca Smith, ‘A Heart Cleft in Twain: the Dilemma of Shakespeare’s Gertrude’, in the same volume p.82, points out that although 10 lines are devoted to the Ghost’s description of the fratricide, 16 are devoted to the liaison between the Queen and brother-in-law (she disagrees, however, that this is characterised as an adulterous one).
[7] Some sources have looked at the possibility that there may be an incestuous complex in the relation between Ophelia and Polonius which parallels that also identified between Hamlet and Gertrude: Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor, Hamlet, Writers and their Work (Plymouth: Northcote House, 1996), p.49. See in particular Theodore Lidz, Hamlet’s Enemy: Madness and Myth in ‘Hamlet’ (Basic Books, 1975). The argument made in the above, however, is that any such hints are purely representative of the point of view of Hamlet, which is itself the product of melancholic delusion.
[8] Hamlet, 1211, 1222-3, 1452, 1462.
[9] For this option occasionally taken in staging, see Rosenburg, Masks of Hamlet, p.366.

All quotations and line references are from The Enfolded Hamlet (Modern Enfolded).